Saturday, November 14, 2009

Worm Theology

The other day as I walked through the parking lot, a large earthworm crossed my path. He-she was wriggling his-her way rapidly toward a patch of green-covered ground. As I drove out of the lot, I carefully drove so as to avoid running over him-her. I smiled to myself as in the rearview mirror, I saw him-her reach land.

When I see earthworms, I am reminded of a professor who once told me about her childhood church experiences. She remembers that her church drilled into her that we humans are lower than worms. We are wretched. She calls this "worm theology."

I read a portion of the Rule everyday. Recently, I read from Chapter 7:

The seventh step of humility is that he should not only pronounce with his tongue that he is inferior to and more common than all, but also believe it in the intimate sensibility of his heart, humbling himself and saying with the prophet: As for me, I am a worm and no man, shameful among men and an outcast of the people (Psalm 22:7).

I thought of my professor. But I remained struck by the quotation from Psalm 22.

St. Benedict, writing for the Roman men of his era, wants to remove any sense of airs on the part of his charges. In a community filled with a mix from late Roman society, slaves and free, highborn and peasant, noble and vagabond, Benedict wants his monks to be rid of worldly notions of rank in relating to one another.

As I read the passage now, I am struck by the wonders of God's creation. I think of the earthworm that crossed my path.

To count myself with worms need not imply worthlessness or contempt toward my person. I came to a quite different conclusion in reading that passage after a joyous round of Psalms and an earthworm encounter. We are not to count ourselves better than others, even earthworms. We too are creatures of earth. We are clay. We are dust. We are createds to use a term by theologian, George Tinker. Or creatures of stardust if we want to think more cosmically. Within the context of the Psalms as whole, and I think especially of those Psalms in which all of creation lauds God, this passage asks us to accept that we too are creatures, ordinary, common. At the same time, this overall Psalmic context reminds us that all things created, all that have their being from God, are also beloved of God.

We humans, to quote my grandmother, "Get too big for our britches."

We start thinking of ourselves as better than worms and frogs and horses.

Soon we start thinking of ourselves as better than one another.

And it is not long before we think ourselves better than God.

To count myself no better than a worm is to accept that I too am a creature of earth.

We so often confuse humility with humiliation.

Humiliation is precisely to show ourselves or another contempt. Humiliation always plays in a vicious pattern: Superior/Inferior. When we humiliate others, we feel superior. When others humiliate us, we feel inferior.

Humility is to count ourselves among the worms, that is, creatures of earth. To be humble is to step outside of the worldly game of superiority and inferiority. We too are creatures. We too have talents and gifts, as well as lacks and growing edges. Knowing our own fragility, we more easily bear with others' faults. Knowing the value of an earthworm in the sight of God, we consider the hippopotamus and the whale with Job's silence and awe.

Surprisingly, when I am willing to place myself alongside the earthworm, rather than humiliation, I find a peace and joy. What better place is there to be than singing praises alongside all of God's creatures? This is the overall context of the Psalms. We humans want to pretend we are not of earth. One way or another, the Psalms remind us that only if we accept our earthiness will we find ourselves human.

1 comment:

  1. I believe I heard her give a presentation on this at Kalamazoo earlier this year! I didn't know she knew you...